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Inside Story: What happens when the whole building swaps keys

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The bet between my husband and me was ongoing: Would the light at the front of our apartment be on or off when we got home, and if on, which neighbor would be sitting at our desktop computer playing Tetris?

Such were the vagaries of life in a small condominium loft  building (four units, one per floor) where neighbors exchanged keys to each other's back doors. The front door to each apartment was the elevator--too complicated and, frankly, too unsecured for key swaps. But the backstairs offered infinite possibilities for community--"running next door" to borrow plates, feeding someone's pet, sharing a cup of tea or coffee and taste-testing a new recipe. It was a life of meeting and kibitzing on landings as easily as if we were leaning across a fence.

Eventually, our children figured into the picture, too. Ours went upstairs (with a quick shout to parents as to where they were headed) to visit 'Uncle' Rob and 'Aunt' Sue, and then, when they moved, their successors, who had equal access to our home. 

We never intruded on each other's privacy at the wrong time. If someone didn't answer a back-door knock when they were known to be in, we assumed they weren't home to visitors.

The exceptions were if we hadn't seen someone in a time (and we always knew who was away), if we had a level of concern about a neighbor's health or if we smelled or heard something "bad" from someone's apartment. (Whining/barking dogs, screeching cats and smells of something burning or rotting fell into this category.) 

The Tetris connection was in its own category. The answer to the bet depended on whether someone had a lousy day at the lab and who that someone was. Sue and Rob, you see, were scientists. Tetris, in which you rotated falling bricks to fill and eliminate whole lines of bricks (and acquire points for doing so), was all hand-eye coordination and mindless--the perfect release for our scientist neighbors.  

The record was Sue's, who stayed one night until the early hours one morning to rack up a five-figure score. Rob, her husband, read a book on the nearby couch while she won. We had gone to sleep in our bedroom.  

Tetris, you see, is a relatively quiet occupation (except for the occasional "yesss" or "nooo" murmured under the breath) and only a reading lamp needed to be on. The understanding was that our neighbors would lock the back door on the way out and leave a note so we'd know in the morning whether either competitor established a new record.

We never worried about theft or people overstaying their welcome or carelessly breaking something, even though we had known these people--and they had known us--only a few months when we all exchanged keys. The original intent was to have a backstop if we ever accidentally locked ourselves out, which is what my husband and I had done the first week we lived in the building. We quickly evolved into a closed universe of interests and activities and mutual concerns. 

We tried to recreate this universe in our next building, also a condo downtown. We failed, amid a hail of questions about people's apartments and belongings being protected from theft, and the whole building (twice as large as our first) secure from invasion. 

Perhaps this kind of neighborliness isn't scalable, at least not with this very different crowd. Perhaps it shouldn't be. Friends and neighbors in equal measure had its day and ended in time to be the source of fond memory, not rancorous remorse.  


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